IUPUI receives Horizon League invitation

Tony Paul, The Detroit News

With Valparaiso departing for the Missouri Valley Conference, the Horizon League was facing the threat of not having a school in Indiana, home of the league’s offices.

The Horizon League worked swiftly to keep that from happening.

In the last week, the Horizon League has offered membership to Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, according to a source with direct knowledge of the league’s plans. IUPUI would come from the Summit League, the same conference Oakland came from when it joined the Horizon League in 2013.

League presidents recently held a conference call to discuss the specifics of membership, and whether IUPUI would join for the 2017-18 season or the 2018-19 season. League athletic directors soon will be presented with two schedules, one for a nine-school league and one for a 10-school league.

IUPUI hasn't yet formally accepted, as negotiations are ongoing.

Commissioner Jonathan B. LeCrone told The News on Wednesday that there's no deadline for a decision, and an entry date hasn't been determined yet. He also wouldn't publicly identify the institution, saying only a formal announcement could come in the next three weeks.

The Horizon League has been talking expansion for several years, but sped up its process when Valparaiso announced in May that it was leaving.

The league is known to have seriously vetted five institutions over the last two years, including IUPUI, Fort Wayne, Robert Morris, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Grand Canyon in Phoenix.

Basketball remains the Horizon League’s chief priority long-term, LeCrone has stated on numerous occasions. IUPUI doesn’t add a ton of cache there, having made just one NCAA Tournament, in 2003. It was 14-18 last season, with an RPI of 217, below average but still better than five Horizon League programs.

Grand Canyon would’ve been the bigger basketball addition, coming off a 22-9 season, with an avid fan base and with a recognizable coach, in former Central Michigan and NBA star Dan Majerle. It’s unclear if Grand Canyon was the second institution to make a presentation to the league’s presidents, along with IUPUI.

Grand Canyon could be a better fit down the road, when the Horizon League adds multiple schools at once. It could get to as many as 14 members, LeCrone said.

“Once we execute that,” LeCrone said of the current extended invitation, “I think we’ll turn our attention back to 11, 12, 13, 14 potentially.

“We have lots of schools on our radar.”

LeCrone said he’s not against expanding the league’s reach beyond its current six-state Midwest cluster, but clearly it would make more financial sense to bundle a Grand Canyon addition with another western institution, so other Horizon League programs — most with modest to shoestring budgets for athletics —could ease the money strain by packaging road trips. New Mexico State, like Grand Canyon from the Western Athletic Conference, could be one potential target down the road.

IUPUI, a 30,000-student school in Indianapolis — which has an airport, no small consideration — carries seven sanctioned men’s sports, nine’s women’s sports and a co-ed cheerleading team. It does not have baseball, which was dropped in 2001, meaning the Horizon League would be at six teams, the minimum number allowed for an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. It does have club baseball. The men’s basketball team is coached by Jason Gardner, a former Arizona star and assistant at Memphis under Josh Pastner. The women’s basketball team has never qualified for the NCAA Tournament.

Assuming IUPUI accepts the invitation, it would leave the Summit League with eight members, but not for long. North Dakota is joining in 2018, and leaving the Big Sky.

If IUPUI accepts the invitation, it would leave the Summit League with eight members, but not for long. North Dakota is joining in 2018, and leaving the Big Sky.

IUPUI athletic director Dr. Roderick Perry did not respond to an email from The News.